There has been a wonderful debate going on in the pages of the Wall Street Journal between Clay Shirky and Nick Carr. Carr became famous for his IT Doesn’t Matter article and has ridden his technology contrarianism to a fantastic intellectual franchise. I have yet to read his newest book, The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains, but according to reviewers I respect like Mark McDonald over at Gartner, the book seems to be a worthwhile review of relevant literature showing how the use of new media, including new digital technologies, can cause poorer performance for  important thinking tasks. 

For example, students who surf while listening to a lecture don’t remember it as well as people who don’t surf. People who multi-task a lot don’t perform a set of cognitive tasks as well as those who don’t multi-task a lot. Perhaps most frighteningly, Carr cites the work of Mr. Merzenich who was a “pioneer in neuroscience” in the 1970s and 1980s who performed experiments in primate brains that showed extensive rewiring after altering the nerves in the primates hands. The good Mr. Merzenich in a conversation with Carr late last year said that the long term effect of constant distractions on our intellectual lives could be “deadly”.

On the other hand, Clay Shirky, who became famous for his book Here Comes Everybody which heralded some of the benefits of crowdsourcing, notes that every new medium spews out more garbage than goodness in its early days. As the famous Stanford literary empiricist Franco Moretti has noted, fewer than 1% of all books ever written are read over time. Shirky points out that the “average” piece of content after the Gutenberg Press, or the Internet, has probably gone down — by the addition of many new units. Shirky also says the erotic novel was widely published 100 years before the scientific paper was born. We see that over time, society creates new institutions to vet the babble-like pile to find the best, and when it comes to the internet we’re still early in the game.

Ikarus's Fall

I believe that this debate garners so much interest because at our core we are deeply ambivalent about technology and its power. If we do as Freud did, and look to our legends as a method to “see” our deepest feelings, technology myths seem to always contain a cautionary tale. The Greek legend of Daedalus, the designer of the Labyrinth which imprisoned the Minotaur, and Icarus his son, simultaneously celebrate the wonders of, and warns of the limits of, technology. As you may remember, Daedalus fashioned wings of feathers and wax for himself and Icarus to transport them from their exile on the island of Crete back home to Athens. The clever father warned his son not to fly too close to the sun or his wings would melt. But, the young man overcome by the seductive power of his flying technology soared too high and died frantically flapping his melted wings. Think of Frankenstein too.

In all of this debate on whether the internet is good with a capital G or bad with a capital B, I’m reminded of my 75 year old father-in-law who finished over 25 Boston Marathons. Gerry, as many athletes do, varied his work out. He performed wind sprints and then long races. Hills and flats. Weights and aerobics. Likewise, it’s a careful selection of  mental tasks, some with the internet, and some without; some scanning quickly and some of deep exploration; some which are verbal and some visual, which together shape the mind. The healthiest minds will be built by varied practices — which probably include meditation and other techniques which have been shown to improve concentration and diminish many mental maladies. Buddhists and other wise traditions have been exploring and improving this situation for almost three millennia.

  • The critical question is: Do you get the requisite variety in your thinking diet?

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